Wyrd Sisters offer bewitching humour

By Michael Byrne, February 18 2022 – 4:00pm

IT only takes a minute or so before the audience starts laughing in Wyrd Sisters.

Opening at the Newcastle Theatre Company last Saturday, and directed by Lyn Singer, this Stephen Briggs adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s sixth Discworld novel elaborately flaunts the kind of witty, parodical style for which Pratchett is still so widely adored.

For large parts of this play, the objects of the audience’s amusement are three witches – Granny Weatherwax (Jo Cooper), Magrat Garlick (Claire Thomas) and Nanny Ogg (Leanne Mueller) – who within moments of first appearing shift shape into a farcical satire of themselves. And once they do, once the occult becomes the silly, they become more of a trope than a troupe. The witches, alongside every other character, are both the target of the jokes and their timely couriers.

In this strange, intertextual world, not even the sanctity of Shakespeare is safe from regular doses of Pratchettian mockery. When Duke Felmet (Lee Mayne) asks if it’s a dagger he sees before him, parodying the delirium of Macbeth, it’s perfectly ironic that only a Fool (Badger McGuffin) is there to appease him.

The natural talents of Cooper, Thomas and Mueller empower them to navigate down the thematic pathways of this fantasy, a genre that Pratchett so memorably likened to an exercise bike for the mind. Stories like these, he once said, never really take you anywhere. But they certainly prepare you for those narrative adventures that can.

The problem is that Terry Pratchett was not a playwright. He never meant for the stage to stage his stationary bicycles. So when the Wyrd Sisters encounter the very unstationary energies of the live theatre, a feeling of confusion gradually takes over.

While Lyn Singer directs each scene skilfully, cleverly blending the deadpan with the frivolous, there’s little in the script itself to help the audience follow along. Unless you are expertly versed in Pratchett’s works, it’s hard to feel a connection to, or empathy for, any one particular character. And with so many narrative wheels spinning at once, we should eventually be transported to somewhere. Instead it feels like we go around in circles.

It’s unfortunate because so many of the performances in Wyrd Sisters are consistent and strong. Where the campy Richard Murray is both flexible and absurdly funny across his handful of roles, Michael Smythe brings a sort of raspy warmth to every one of his brief appearances. Kirsty Horton is great as a wickedly steely Duchess. Both Helen Comber and Alison Lancey are charmingly silly whenever they appear.

These variously charismatic performances are handsomely matched to their surroundings. The costumes (Maxine Mueller) are detailed, imaginative and vividly colourful.

The sparsely designed set (Irene McDonagall) especially comes alive once accompanied by an excellent set of projections designed by Lyn Singer. The eerie unearthliness, from the woods to the dungeons, feels vibrant, spooky and especially authentic.